It wasn’t Parliamentary Affairs Minister Kamal Nath’s victory as much as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s little-known networking skills which ensured an overwhelming victory for the UPA government in on Friday’s Rajya Sabha vote on allowing foreign direct investment (FDI) in multi-brand retailing.
The ruling UPA coalition is in a minority in this House. While Bahujan Samaj Party supremo Mayawati (15 members) had already made public her support for the government yesterday, the last-minute presence or vital absence of certain members (which helped the UPA and depleted the Opposition numbers) was also achieved through calls made by the PM to some, including industrialist MPs like liquor baron Vijay Mallya.
Senior Congress leaders reportedly had been negotiating with Telugu Desam members, three of whom absented themselves from the vote on Friday. The predictable walkout by the nine-member Samajwadi Party, in the midst of Commerce Minister Anand Sharma’s reply, ensured the UPA’s flanks were well covered. The BSP’s support was the lifeline for the government but every vote still mattered to reach that figure of 123. On its own, the Congress had a mere 70 MPs and the presence and vote of each nominated member and Independent counted. The PM’s last-minute phone call to Vijay Mallya ensured his presence. Mallya (an independent MP) flew down in his personal jet from London and left immediately for the airport after casting his vote. Actress Rekha, one among the 10 nominated MPs, was persuaded by Congress floor manager Rajeev Shukla for several days before her presence could be ensured.
It was JD(U) rebel Upendra Kushwaha who added to the UPA numbers with his single vote, the effective strength of the UPA then going up to 108 and bolstered to 123 by the BSP.
The Opposition NDA and the Left were stung by the final numbers displayed on the electronic board and subsequently read out by Chairman Hamid Ansari. The sudden absence of three out of five TDP MPs – Sudha Rani, Devender Goud and Y S Choudhary — who till late last night were reportedly all committed to voting against the UPA and thereby voting for the motion, depleted the Opposition numbers. According to sources, Kamal Nath had been prevailing upon Goud, and Choudhary had taken formal leave of absence from TDP chief Chandrababu Naidu on account of a medical check-up. Even CPM leader Sitaram Yechury, whose party is in alliance with the TDP in Andhra, confessed to being confounded at their sudden absence.
So keen was the government to win by a substantial margin that Janardhan Waghmare was brought in on a stretcher and Janardhan Reddy was present on a wheelchair, both voting from the lobby. Murli Deora, a senior Congress member, was absent, being medically unfit.
The AIADMK’s V Maitreyan aptly said, “Going by the speeches of the MPs from different political parties, the vast majority of speakers and parties have opposed FDI in retail. Opposing in speech and vote were 20 speakers from 13 parties; opposing and then abstaining in vote was one speaker from one party; opposed in speech but supporting in vote were two speakers from two parties, and only 11 speakers from six parties supported in speech and in vote.”
Maitreyan tore through minister Anand Sharma’s reply and challenged him to remain in power after the 2014 elections, with this controversial decision. What added to an already charged atmosphere was a bungle by the secretariat during the crucial vote.